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Going for the Goldblum: The Big Chill

Last week, we saw what happened when Jeff Goldblum collected a bunch of rocket jocks for NASA in The Right Stuff. We don’t get too far from that “oh, weren’t the ’60s great for white guys!” vibe, but this time we’re coming at the decade from another angle. Goldblum’s still playing within type for this period in his career: gawky, cerebral at first glance, and slightly endearing. But, boy, is this a whole different beast.

Lawrence “Father of Jake” Kasdan’s The Big Chill is the kind of nostalgia piece that seems poignant and meaningful. In the movie, a bunch of thirtysomethings gather for the funeral of one of their friends, who committed suicide, and take stock of their lives fifteen years after they were in college together. It was absolutely catnip for the Baby Boomer audience it was aimed at.

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It’s also stocked with a powerhouse cast, most of whom were on the rise at the time: Glenn Close and Kevin Kline are the maybe-happily married yuppie couple who hosts the weekend gathering. Tom Berenger’s an amazingly mustachioed successful actor struggling with fame. JoBeth Williams is longing for something different but unwilling to make any changes for it. Mary Kay Place has everything she wants except a baby. Meg Tilly wears a leotard. William Hurt is insufferable and emotionally damaged. Kevin Costner’s the dead guy you never actually see. Everyone has a floofy hairdo, wallows in their privilege, and wears the highest-waisted pants you’ve ever seen in your life. And it’s all framed by a gorgeously decorated house, atmospheric landscapes, conspicuous consumption, and the long slow dissolution of youthful idealism.

Jeff Goldblum rounds out the cast as Michael, an entertainment reporter, late of People Magazine, who spends the whole movie on the make in one way or another. He’s hustling for money and connections to get his new nightclub off the ground. He’s also trying way too hard to get in Meg Tilly’s pants (but almost anyone will do, it’s suggested). In a cast of blandly odious narcissists and depressives, he’s in a class of his own — Meg Tilly isn’t just the hot young thing tangentially related to the group, she’s also the dead guy’s girlfriend, who found his body and has nowhere else to go. When the conversation turns to their friend’s suicide and their disappointment in the lack of a note, Michael announces that it wouldn’t have been so hard to leave one. He routinely sums up entire lives in “32 paragraphs.”

He’s the grossest thing in a movie that reveals new, banal grotesqueries in almost every scene. The worst is how appealing he still manages to be. Although Michael’s meant to be slimy and calculating, Goldblum seems awkward and unsure instead. There’s a core of self-interested vulnerability to the character, though whether that’s Goldblum’s doing or the script’s, it’s hard to say.

I first saw The Big Chill when I was in high school, when I thought most of the characters seemed impossibly cool (they smoked weed in their own living room! they were at the March on Washington! they were adults!). Watching it now, as an adult nearing the age the characters are, oh, god, it’s painful. It’s also not hard to see why the TV show thirtysomething is usually recognized as this movie’s spiritual heir. Navel-gazing is the name of this game in a big way. What is the point of the movie? There isn’t one. Everyone drifts around each other in this slice of life — and it’s a totally manufactured life, both textually and meta-textually. There is no center to the group, and there doesn’t seem to be a center to the movie. It never feels like any of them have a genuine conversation with anyone else, except in anger. The movie looks great and it certainly sounds great, but when the credits roll, it’s revealed to be as insubstantial as a puff of smoke.

Except for the impact it had on the careers of everyone involved, especially Jeff Goldblum, who would move up to top billing within just a year or two. The Big Chill also unleashed a virtual flood of Boomer nostalgia pieces: movies, music, television, novels. Nothing was safe. Nothing is safe. I’d argue that you can lay Boomer-glorifying snake person-bashing as a hobby directly at this movie’s feet. It’s a relentless paean to the glorious idealism of sixties youth and the grasping practicality of eighties adulthood.

If you’re into that sort of thing, I do actually recommend the movie. The performances are spectacular, though shallow, which is only fitting because — speaking of shallow — two of the highlights of the movie are 1) Kevin Kline in the most ridiculously tiny running shorts in the history of the world, and 2) the credits for Tom Berenger’s fake TV show, which is a glorious cross between TJ Hooker, Magnum PI, and my personal favorite, The Fall Guy. Plus, the music really is dynamite, featuring The Band, the Stones, Aretha, Percy Sledge, Smokey Robinson, among others. It’s also fun to see if you can catch a glimpse of Kevin Costner’s face at the beginning of the movie.

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